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Houston horror filmmakers share scares independently

August 22, 2018

Houston has long had a thriving independent movie production scene, especially when it comes to horror. However, despite a long history of producing good-quality features and shorts starring minor celebrities and local talent, few if any home-produced productions have really broken out in the traditional sense — you know, big theatrical releases. That’s why more and more Bayou City filmmakers are using new outlets to leave the distribution system behind and release content on their own.

Courtney Sandifer and Chuck Norfolk are going that route. Earlier this year, they wrapped up filming a black comedy called “Life Insurance Lottery,” about a man at the end of his rope who joins a club where everyone makes everyone else their policy beneficiaries. Dark hilarity ensues. Norfolk has had films in the past that were picked up by distributors, including “Getting Schooled” (2017) and “The Haunted Trailer” (2014), starring Ron Jeremy, a man famous for being in a different type of film. Their production experience was underwhelming.

“We’ve yet to make our money back on either ‘Haunted Trailer’ or ‘Getting Schooled,’” Norfolk says about film distributors. “They bring in a bunch of movies, throw some money at them to see what pops. They’ll take them to some new markets a few times a year. ‘Getting Schooled’ is in the United Arab Emirates, Sweden and, recently, India. I could do that myself. It’s possible, if not easy.”

One of the things Norfolk is looking forward to with self-distribution is more information on sales.

He says detailed statistics on sales come quarterly (if at all) and rarely have the sort of demographic data that people need to maximize their marketing. By doing things himself, he can get that data.

“Say I want to put $500 in a Facebook ad,” Norfolk says. “Within the run of the ad, we can see if that did anything and if it was something we’d want to do in the future. It’s a great tool for microbudget filmmakers. We’ll never have that information from the distributor.”

Currently, streaming the films through Amazon Prime seems to be the best way to go. That’s what Joe Grisaffi says about movies like “Dead of Knight” and “Conjoined,” which he’s taken to the streaming platform. Filmmakers can now upload their films directly for no fee, choosing whether to make them rentable or downloadable. Amazon takes half of the profits and pays out by the hours streamed. “For Dead of Night,” Grisaffi’s most popular film, he’s made as much as $600 a month.

“The most important thing to me is that I actually get the money, versus going through a distributor where, frankly, you don’t know if you’re going to get paid or not,” Grisaffi says. “If Amazon takes half and the distributor takes 25 percent, that’s even less that you get, if you get it at all. A lot of distributors don’t put much money into marketing, so the filmmakers end up marketing it. I’ve seen so many friends put money into marketing and never see anything from it. Now, I put in the effort and actually see the results financially.”

The marketing hustle hasn’t changed much for the indie filmmaker. Convention appearances are still a prime way for local directors and producers to reach audiences. And there are more grass roots approaches. Grisaffi, for instance, takes flyers for his films with him whenever he attends the movies so he can hand them out to other horror fans. Comicpalooza is another prime ground for striking up relationships with potential fans.

“People are more likely to buy a DVD if you’ll sign it or watch a film if they’ve met you,” Grisaffi says.

Stephen Wolfe is another director headed for self-release. His horror-comedy “Doll Factory” is one of Houston’s most famous unreleased films as it sits waiting for a release date from the distributor. In the meantime, he’s returned to horror shorts. The latest is “Curse,” a tale of gruesome revenge from a scorned deep web snuff filmmaker and hacker that’s due out late this summer. Wolfe is more interested in building an audience at this junction than monetary gain, and he’s headed to YouTube.

“With shorts, it’s more about getting exposure or using as a proof of concept,” Wolfe says.

He’s looking into prominent horror YouTube channels like Kings of Horror, which boasts over 500,000 subscribers and reaches thousands of viewers through their releases on YouTube. A horror short going viral certainly has its advantages. Swedish filmmakers David F. Sandberg and Lotta Losten hit gold with their short “Lights Out,” which garnered enough attention to eventually become a major feature produced by James Wan, of “The Conjuring” and “Saw” fame.

Shorts.tv is another outlet for the aspiring short-form filmmaker. A 24/7 HD channel celebrating short works, it’s the perfect place for works like “Curse” to find a home, and they take individual submissions.

There are many paths open to filmmakers who want to get their work out that don’t involve traditional distribution. However, the most important thing is having a film to show in the first place.

“Sometimes,” Grisaffi says, “finished is better than perfect.”

Jef Rouner is a writer in Houston.

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